Carnage and A Separation: two films with so many similarities, yet at the same time so different. Both films pivot on disputes between two couples—both of which disputes have to do with harm done to one of the couple’s offspring (an actual child in Carnage and a fetus in A Separation)—and in both films, nearly every scene features people argumentatively butting heads with one another, attempting to make sense of some situation by explaining how they see it and by what values the rightness or wrongness of another character’s actions should be judged. Both films also end with rifts between their two couples. Although A Separation ends with Nader and Simin’s (Peyman Moaadi and Leila Hatami) divorce, the bond holding together the film’s other couple, Razieh and Houjat (Sareh Bayat and Shahab Hosseini) is also nonetheless severely damaged, even if it is unlikely that they will get divorced (I’m assuming, because of their religious beliefs). And of course, we don’t know what will happen to the two couples in Carnage, but if neither actually does get divorced (there are plenty of similar, unhappy couples in the real world who nevertheless stay together), we are left thinking that perhaps they might be better off if they did.
But as similar as these two films are (and it seems worth pointing out that Carnage is even based on a play by a woman of partly Iranian descent, connecting it further with A Separation), what’s far more interesting is how and why they differ. The arguing in Carnage is tedious, exasperating, and draining. In A Separation, it is vitalizing and endlessly fascinating. This is not a statement of valuation regarding these films. Although I do prefer A Separation to Carnage, I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that the former gives us a much more optimistic and hopeful glimpse of community, even if its story is altogether more tragic in many ways. Nor do I think one could account for the differences between these two films by merely referencing their diverging stylistic approaches. A Separation is strictly naturalistic and documentary-like, whereas Carnage, theatrical in its origins, is far more conventionally “dramatic,” bordering on the absurdist. Even so, both films equally cut straight to the reality of sociality and communication in their respective worlds, digging out raw truths about the forces that shape the way we interact with and meet one another. In presenting two very different social spaces in which the endless arguments in these films take place, Carnage and A Separation depict two very different senses of community.
The first question we might want to ask is “What the hell is wrong with these people in Carnage?” It isn’t that these characters don’t listen to one another, so wrapped up in their own concerns. Like many narcissists, they quite perceptively pick up on certain things about the other people in the room, analytically breaking them down and assessing their strengths and weaknesses. In fact, within the first fifteen minutes of meeting her, Penelope (Jodie Foster) has already concluded that Nancy (Kate Winslet) is “fake.” Later, Nancy’s husband Alan (Christoph Waltz) even points out, upon discovering what Penelope thinks of his wife, how presumptuous it is to make conclusions based on only knowing a person for fifteen minutes. Is Penelope wrong? It’s hard to say, because we don’t really feel comfortable trusting the assertions made by any of the characters and because we recognize that there are layers of interpersonal protocol and established but unacknowledged customs that shape the way we relate to each other and often push us toward behavior that might be deemed “fake.” Like cattle being led from one pen to another, the characters in Carnage are corralled in on either side by an invisible set of rules and regulations concerning interpersonal behavior, limiting and shaping their actions and pushing them toward certain unavoidable conclusions.
For most American audiences (particularly for the type of people who would show up to see a film like Carnage), these characters and situations will probably seem very recognizable, albeit exaggerated for dramatic effect. There’s a sense in which Carnage fairly accurately depicts communication among a certain American milieu, so that it feels unmistakably familiar. Carnage depicts a very precise social configuration, describing the underlying circumstances in which strangers or mere acquaintances attempt to negotiate some sense of common ground. But in Carnage, there is no common ground, not even between spouses, and this is depicted by Polanski as the great tragedy of alienated modern life in the West. It’s become a cliche to interpret each and every Polanski film through the prism of his Holocaust experiences, but these interpretations often do speak volumes. The same breakdown of social trust, enacted on a widespread and institutional level in Nazi-era Germany, is part of the fabric of the world depicted in Carnage. A not-unimportant thread running through Polanski’s body of work is the recognition that sometime during the 20th century, “something happened,” leading to a kind of secular Fall of Man.
The scene of this inexorable tragedy, for Polanski, is often ritualistically embodied in the space of the apartment, a compartmentalized world that isolates the individual from his participation in a broader, shared community. But although one often feels that, within Polanski’s cinema, there is a distinct urge to flee from society and to ensconce oneself in a personal, isolated space, there is also the recognition of the disintegration of the individual, urged along by the bureaucratization of our public life and the compartmentalization of our private life (signified by the space of the apartment). The characters in Carnage are nothing like Nietzschean Übermenschen, and as we see the social and public bonds holding them together wither away and die, we are also witness to the traumatic disintegration of the individual. “Why can’t I have things my way?” many of Carnage’s characters seem to implicitly ask. And the answer is that you can’t have your way some of the time because, if you could have it your way, you’d choose to have your way all of the time. The characters in Carnage only know how to take, but they’re not just selfish: they’ve truly lost touch with whatever social fabric had once kept them bonded together, which made all existence a negotiated process. “Hell is other people,” said Sartre, but when Polanski’s characters flee from one another, taking refuge in private isolation, they find not that “all along, Hell was really just me” but that Hell is a world where our former, socially contracted existence has become irredeemably polluted, turning our once-cherished private existence into a dizzying, spiraling world completely lacking in direction or bearing.
In contrast to Carnage’s world of only taking and never giving, A Separation depicts a world of give-and-take par excellence. Some Americans might feel the impulse to see this world as somehow “other,” but in truth, Iranian society as depicted in A Separation is a relatively sane and recognizably human world, whereas Carnage shows us another side of ourselves altogether, all the more dangerous to the extent that it might be familiar to us. The difference between the two worlds is in everything that is unseen: what makes both Carnage and A Separation good films is the way they can make visible the shared sociocultural understanding, or lack thereof, between individuals. There is almost nothing for the characters in Carnage to hold onto to pull themselves out of the total void of isolated individuality. When they make references to the types of values that groups of people might share—e.g. that people should apologize when they injure one another, the extent to which “snitching” breaks established moral codes, the desirability of reconciliation between families who might never need to see each other ever again (because that’s a luxury so distinct to the milieu of Carnage)—these ideas and beliefs come across as mere poses to be scoffed at for their sheer abstraction. Contemporary democratic liberalism tends to champion these kinds of values in their most abstract form, as weightless principles, but without context with which to cling, they ring sharply hollow. We often distinguish the “letter of the law” from its spirit, and the absurd tragedy of the characters in Carnage is that they know only letter, never spirit. Their laws lack substance, poetry.
The absence of a shared sense of law is a theme running throughout Polanski’s work, but as we plunge into Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, we see just the opposite, a fullness, even excess, of law. In America, we have been prejudicially conditioned to look down upon the way law functions in Islamic societies. There’s an irony here, in that our desire to quibble over the rightness or wrongness of each individual component of any system of law has effective crippled our sense of law as a (social) whole. The four characters in Carnage represent four distinct views of the law, but rather than embodying archetypal attitudes toward law, they merely function as completely random and arbitrary points on a shapeless continuum of stances. Each has a very particular idea of what is right and wrong, but this total conception of law is nothing more than the accumulation of individual prejudices, spurred on by whim. And let’s remember that taking the law completely into one’s own hands, with no recourse to external input or feedback, is textbook sociopathology. In America, the land of democracy, we all rule like gleeful totalitarians over kingdoms that extend no further than our own private orbit. Leaving aside a discussion of formal and institutional politics, the world depicted cinematically in A Separation is the far more democratic one. The characters in Farhadi’s film are hedged in just like those of Carnage—to be human and social is to be restrained in some way or another—but they exist within a community, and whatever values or ideas they express are shaded by the echoes of that community’s values, of their shared ethical discourse.
After a shot from inside a photocopier, showing us a series of legal documents, all of which locate the film’s characters as citizens in a broader community, A Separation begins with a shot of its principal couple, Nader and Simin. The shot has the two of them looking into the camera, and it is framed completely symmetrically. This stunningly and lucidly cogent shot tells us two things. First, although Nader and Simin are discussing the reasons for why they want to divorce, the fact that they are facing the camera (which, we quickly realize, stands not only for the judge who is interviewing them, but which also stands for us, both the audience and the extended community) acknowledges that their divorce does not just affect the two of them but that it is also a matter of the community as a whole. It will affect most notably their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), and as we see, the repercussions of their separation also affect Nader’s father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). And in requiring Nader to find a caretaker for his father, the separation also affects Razieh and her husband Houjat, causing her inadvertently to lose the child she had been carrying. Still more people are affected in imperceptible ways of which we are not even aware: divorce is messy. Second, this shot acknowledges that Nader and Simin are equals. This is not just a matter of gender equality. Carnage, after all, depicts the interactions between men and women in a society supposedly more “advanced” in terms of gender equality (as the conventional, ethnocentric discourse tell us), but there is still something profoundly lacking there that is wholly present in A Separation. This is the sense that every person’s testimony matters equally, not just in the legal context but as individuals in a shared community founded on mutual respect on some fundamental level. What both Nader and Simin have to say about their separation is crucial, and we cannot get to any sufficiently just sense of resolution unless we consider both perspectives. Cinema is a medium particularly effective in giving us multiple perspectives because, as Stanley Cavell notes, it allows us to take views of the world, reflecting an array of perspectives.
As Nader and Simin argue with one another, we also hear the voice of a judge. Farhadi does not show us this judge’s face in this scene (although, in a later scene, we do in fact see another judge), so that his voice and authority becomes depersonalized, but rather than being merely abstracted, the role of the judge becomes folded into our role as a viewer. And because of the specific setup of the camera in this scene, we feel less like a movie audience and more like a receptive and participating community, addressed directly by Nader and Simin. In this scene, and in the later scene with a different judge, the function provided by the judge is precisely what was missing in Carnage. He provides a sense of common ground, given authority not only by Iran’s political institutions but also by a shared religion and culture. The characters in A Separation may have differing beliefs and attitudes toward religion—numerous references are made to the substantial gap in the religious attitudes held by Nader and Simin versus Razieh and Houjat, the more “conservatively” religious couple—but there is indeed some sense of common ground that prevents one party from unilaterally declaring what they believe to be right and then proceeding to ignore any and all differing perspectives. And when characters do feel that they have arrived at a conclusion, it is only ever provisional, as though written in sand and waiting to be washed away when the tide of communal attitudes and needs changes. The characters in Carnage stand before one another and deliver grandiose speeches as though on a stage, but in A Separation there is a sense in which each character’s thoughts cannot be completed fully until they have been shared with others and can then receive a response.
This is why it seems to sometimes take so long for anything to be resolved in A Separation. Consider what Razieh must first do in order to be assured that she can in good conscience undress Nader’s father and bathe him after he accidentally urinates on himself. Razieh calls someone—a religious authority of some sort, it seems—and explains the situation, running through a series of details. She tells this person that yes, she is alone in the house with him, that he is old and senile, and that it would be unethical for him to leave him as he is, given that he has become helpless. It’s also this process of near-endless negotiation that partly leads to Nader pushing Razieh violently out his front door when he and Razieh cannot come to an agreement about whether or not she stole money from him and whether or not she endangered Nader’s father by tying him to his bed and leaving him to nap while she went to the doctor. And it is this incident that, for most of the film, we are led to believe has caused Razieh’s miscarriage, the event that fuels much of the ensuing drama. This scene, in which Nader and Razieh argue as he is attempting to force her to exit his home, is interesting because, again, it is so similar to and yet so different from some of the scenes in Carnage, in which Nancy and Alan more than once attempt to leave the home of Penelope and Michael (John C. Reilly). In both scenes, loud arguments occur right outside the door of an apartment, that most Polanskian of symbols, and there are even nosy neighbors in both scenes, as if each was the mirror image of the other. Carnage’s nosy neighbor, a man who barely peeks out from his own front door, is a glimpse of the quintessentially paranoid state of mind that lingers always just under the surface of Polanski’s films. In A Separation, the neighbor comes down after hearing the disturbance to check on Razieh and make sure everything is okay. One half expects her to insert herself into the argument, given that once you step outside the front door, the apartment complex where Nader lives, particularly its relatively more public stairwell, is hardly a private space.
I expect some American audiences to not make much of the vital sense of community present in Farhadi’s film. After all, Farhadi does show that there are aspects of the society he depicts that seem less than ideal. The two couples spend much time in court going back and forth, repeating details and sometimes even doubling back on what they had said previously. By contrast, the two couples in Carnage have a substantial amount of freedom to settle their dispute as they please, without any outside interference. But they don’t really get anywhere, do they? By the end of the film, they haven’t even moved an inch closer to figuring out what’s happened, nor have either of them come to any deeper understanding of their own sons. The entirety of the film, save for the opening and closing shots, show us only the inside of Penelope and Michael’s apartment. But those opening and closing shots—the first depicting from far away the incident between the two boys that leads to their parent’s dispute, while the second returns us to the same park as we see people going about their day—tell us so much about what is missing. The last shot in particular is like a breath of fresh air, reminding us that we can always step outside and rejoin society, a community, and in doing so, step out from underneath our own solipsism, which has weighed us down and pinned us to our own alienated individuality. The interior hell that we see for most of Carnage is a kind of anti-utopia, the inverted image of true human community, and although A Separation is hardly utopian, it is a necessary step in the right direction compared to Carnage. We flee the world of A Separation because we feel constrained by our relationship with others and by the obligations of the community, but we find no solace in the pampered isolation of Carnage. From the vantage point of late capitalism, the only public virtue that our ideology can sustain is the unfettered freedom promised by this individualistic isolation, but Polanski’s cinematic body of work has already demonstrated perfectly well that down that path lies madness.
One feels throughout Polanski’s films a distinct fatigue, as though one has been running for so long that any respite is desirable no matter what the costs. This is rendered most literally in The Pianist, a film very much about being on the run. The same distinct sense is also felt in The Tenant, in which the eponymous character (tellingly played by Polanski himself) is hounded from all directions by the other tenants in his apartment complex. It ultimately drives that character to attempt suicide, the natural endpoint in the flight from society. Carnage is relatively stable in a spatial sense, but the characters in this film too are fleeing one another, even as they circle each other inside the apartment. Polanski’s films have thus traced the uniquely modern drive to flee society, especially the hellish version of society as conveyed by Sartre’s oft-repeated phrase. But this movement cannot sustain itself, and eventually, we realize that the deeply flawed community of A Separation is at least, in its fundamental humanity, the only viable model for sociality that human beings, inherently defined by their lack of perfection, have yet developed. It’s messy, tedious, and perhaps even needlessly complex, but it is at the same time refreshingly alive and agile. The back-and-forth give-and-take of this kind of community life may be never-ending, never granting the respite desired so often in Polanski’s work, but there is also the promise that it is infinitely adaptable to the needs of both the community itself and the individuals who constitute that community.
This is the promise of democracy considered in its most abstract and ideal form, and I don’t think we should make too much of the fact that, in this case, it is the Iranian film that has the most to teach the Westerners of Carnage (a fact that would no doubt rankle many xenophobic Americans). After all, no group of people can claim ownership to this form of community. It is the inheritance of being human. Farhadi’s film is replete with images of doors, walls, screens, and other visual obstructions, standing between individuals and demarcating spaces. In one scene, Farhadi even shows us the door closing as Razieh proceeds to wash Nader’s father, giving her the privacy she deserves. Farhadi uses these cinematic devices to illustrate the ways in which space is always socially charged, and at all times, we are aware of how the characters move not through rooms and buildings but through zones of community and sociality, of varying levels of publicity and in various configurations. It is as if Farhadi is telling us that we unavoidably live within a broader network of social space, that it is our obligation and moral imperative as human beings to navigate and reorganize these spaces to fit the ever-evolving needs of a community of individuals. The greatest compliment one could give to Farhadi and his film, then, is that in this world, even he may be able to find a way to get the solipsistic characters of Carnage to finally encounter one another and find some common ground.